Country singer Charlie Louvin dies at 83
Thursday, January 27, 2011
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When Charlie Louvin paired his voice with his brother Ira’s on their first recordings in the late 1940s, they released a sound wave that still ripples through music nearly six decades later.
As half of The Louvin Brothers duo, Charlie Louvin helped perfect a special brand of harmony that enchanted listeners with its purity and honesty. The influence can still be heard at the top of the charts today in pop, country and rock ’n’ roll.
Louvin, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry, died early Wednesday at his home in Wartrace, about 50 miles southeast of Nashville. The 83-year-old had suffered pancreatic cancer for about six months.
The Louvin Brothers’ sound spread hypnotically over the airwaves and through the loving touch of a phonograph arm, instantly charming and inciting listeners to go ahead and try to reach the perfection of two brothers joined in making a sound that is nearly impossible to reproduce.
“He really changed the world of music, Charlie did,” Emmylou Harris said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “I know that, for me, hearing the Louvin Brothers brought me that fierce love of harmony.”
Like a game of 6,000 degrees of separation, their influence was passed around from The Everly Brothers to The Beatles and The Beach Boys, from Gram Parsons to Harris and The Byrds, and passed on again and again to the kids of a new century like Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, The Secret Sisters and legion high harmony lovers.
The Louvin Brothers disbanded in 1963 and Ira was killed two years later in a Missouri auto accident. John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said Louvin helped keep the duo’s memory alive throughout the rest of his career, often incorporating Louvin Brothers material with his own.
They had just a dozen hits or so in the 1950s and early ’60s, most notably “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” which was No. 1 in 1955. Rumble noted the song managed to ascend to No. 1 despite the spread of rock ’n’ roll by then.
“On their recordings, a tastefully played electric guitar was their only concession to modernism,” Rumble said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Parsons, the former Byrds member who infected several ’60s and ’70s rock musicians with a love for country, first heard the Louvins at a show in Waycross, Ga., in 1956, at the age of 9. Elvis was on that bill, too, but it was the Louvins who won his heart. Parsons was not the only listener to hear something very different in their music.
“In sharp contrast to the prevailing honky-tonk and country-pop music of the day, their sound was essentially a throwback to the mandolin-guitar ’brother duets’ of the 1930s, emphasizing high-pitched singing and a repertoire embracing both secular and sacred songs that stressed themes of family, love, sin and salvation,” Rumble said.
Louvin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last summer and underwent surgery that was only partially successful. Nevertheless he continued a vigorous performance schedule and was one of several stars invited to a welcome-home performance of the Grand Ole Opry last year after floods damaged the Opry house.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” Louvin said in a July interview. “We’re all going to do that. And I’ve had 83 years of almost uninterrupted good health, so I know that’s not by accident. So I’ve been blessed that long, and I could use a couple more.”
The brothers decided to disband their duo after differences in personality and Ira’s drinking created friction between them, but Charlie said they probably would have reunited if Ira had lived.
Louvin recorded regularly after his brother died, most recently releasing “The Battle Rages On,” a collection of war songs, last winter. His biggest solo hits were “I Don’t Love You Anymore” in 1964 and “See the Big Man Cry” in 1965.
Interest in the Louvins ebbed and flowed over the years with small resurgences in the 1970s, 1990s and in the new century. Harris had a hit with their “If I Could Only Win Your Love” in 1975. In 2007, his first studio album in years, “Charlie Louvin,” boasted appearances from artists as diverse as George Jones, Jeff Tweedy and Elvis Costello. It was nominated for a Grammy as best traditional folk album.
A year later, his “Steps To Heaven” was nominated as best Southern, country or bluegrass gospel album. It was one of two albums he put out in 2008; the other was “Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs.”
The duo had become members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, and Charlie Louvin remained an Opry performer for more than 50 years.
During one stretch of touring in 1955, Elvis Presley was the brothers’ opening act. That second billing didn’t last long, he recalled in 2007.
“It didn’t take a month until they dropped the name ’Presley’ and nearly the backdrop of the entire stage was ELVIS. He got big quick, very quick, but he was a good kid.”
He laughed when he said he was “kinda like the people in the audience — I didn’t know what he’s doing. ... My brother said he’s the only man he’d ever seen that could wear his clothes on out from the inside with all his shaking.”
Louvin was born Charles Loudermilk in Henager, Ala., in 1927. He and Ira, born in 1924, worked in the fields on the family farm and began singing together as teenagers, developing the harmony that would become their trademark.
“I can remember my brother and I singing together when I was 5 and he was 8 years old,” Louvin told The Associated Press. “He already knew how, and he was teaching me.”
They worked on radio stations in Knoxville and Memphis in the 1940s, and signed their first record deal with Apollo in 1947. Eventually their sound would change music.
“I’m the biggest harmony lover in the world,” Louvin said last year. “If a song’s worth singing you ought to put harmony on it.”
Associated Press Writers Joe Edwards and Kristin M. Hall contributed to this report.
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